Thompson and Cohen to miss tour

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There is an increasingly pungent whiff of the 1998 "tour of hell" about England's forthcoming trip to Wallaby country.

Two World Cup winners, the Northampton hooker Steve Thompson and his club colleague, the winger Ben Cohen, have opted out of next month's two-Test visit to Australia, preferring to spend the summer preparing properly for the defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in France in 16 months' time. In addition, one of the more promising of the Saints' uncapped brigade, the centre Jon Clarke, is about to undergo surgery on a hernia and will be out for the forseeable future.

Thompson and Cohen join a number of fellow senior internationals - Lawrence Dallaglio and Josh Lewsey of Wasps; Jonny Wilkinson of Newcastle; and, in all probability, the current captain, Martin Corry of Leicester - in a watching brief this summer. As a result, England will fly to Sydney with an unfamiliar squad low on experience, as well as a new coaching team.

The most obvious parallel is the trip to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa under Clive Woodward eight years ago. The result then? Four Test defeats and a points differential of 198-32. Scary.

Dallaglio, due an operation to remove a metal plate from his ankle, will be on club duty at Kingsholm this afternoon - his 150th Premiership appearance. Wasps, who must beat a vibrantly youthful Gloucester side to have any hope of retaining their champion status, have recalled Lewsey and Joe Worsley, although the France international hooker Raphael Ibañez misses out with a knee injury. Joe Ward will play at the fulcrum of the scrum.

London Irish could yet earn themselves a home semi-final if they beat Saracens and Leicester slip up at home to Bristol. The Exiles announced yesterday that Mike Catt, their influential centre, has signed a one-year extension to his contract - a decision that will depress followers of his former club, Bath, who were keen to welcome him back to the Rec in a player-coaching role.

* The new Wales coach, Gareth Jenkins, has made a first appointment to his backroom team by naming the former Llanelli centre, Nigel Davies, as attack coach.

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